By Susan DeGrane

8:15 AM, Sunday, January 2. On Midway Airport’s concourse B, the gate 9 seating area is undergoing a dramatic transformation.

A wooden wardrobe on wheels delivers trappings of the Catholic faith to a fast-working team of volunteers. An elaborately carved portable altar is dressed with a gold lame skirt and crisp white linen top cloth, followed by a gold chalice, gold candlesticks, and tapers. Moments later come the Communion host, water, wine, several red poinsettias, and a painting of a Nativity scene on a brass stand bearing a cross. A gold satin banner emblazoned with another cross is taped to the wall behind the altar, completely covering a red-and-white America West sign.

The number of seats in the waiting area nearly doubles with the installation of 40 folding chairs, all set with bulletins and yellow leaflets containing prayers and hymns.

At 8:25, Father George McKenna strips off his maroon windbreaker with “Airport Chaplain” printed on the back and pulls white vestments out of the wardrobe cart. During his quick change, the seats in the makeshift chapel fill completely, and about ten more people stand at the back of the waiting area.

When the mass begins at 8:30, a meditative calm spreads over the group as McKenna’s voice rings clearly through a sound system that must hold its own against the din of travelers scurrying along the tile floors, the barrage of departing flight calls, and the crescendo blasts of departing planes.

For the last 13 years McKenna’s been celebrating mass every Sunday morning for a congregation of airport security guards, janitors, flight attendants, baggage handlers, executives, Chicago police officers, travelers, and even a few people from the neighborhood.

This first Sunday mass of the new year falls four days short of Epiphany, the day commemorating the Magi’s acknowledgment of Jesus as the Christ and savior. McKenna centers his sermon on the unshakable faith of the three wise men.

“We can compare the journey of the Magi to our own journey of faith,” he says. “The wise men braved sandstorms, attacks by bandits, different obstacles of travel.” As if on cue, the roar of jet engines bears down on gate 9, rattling the windows. The noise subsides and McKenna continues. “At times the star appeared hidden and they didn’t know where to go. But they persevered….They were tempted to go back, but they didn’t.”

The homily lasts only three minutes, which McKenna figures is best for this setting, “because people are busy. They can only take so much time out from work on a break or they have a flight to catch.”

But time constraints aren’t the only reason McKenna keeps his sermons brief. “When they’re too long, people lose interest,” he says. In the last two years two volumes of his three-minute sermons have been published. He sells them to raise money for the airport ministry.

Steve Cullen used to travel frequently through Midway and stumbled on one of McKenna’s masses on a business trip. “What impressed me most was the spirit of his sermons,” Cullen says. “He says more in three minutes than most homilies manage to say in a half hour. And it’s something you can take with you.”

While the mass is similar to most Catholic services, with readings from the Gospels, recitations of psalms, hymns, and even chimes to summon the prayer for the Eucharist, the service lasts about half as long–30 minutes–and does not require worshipers to kneel. “It’s not that we aren’t just as reverent,” McKenna says. “It’s all in the heart.”

Holding steadfast to the faith is McKenna’s message for the day, but reaching those who would not otherwise have access to weekend services is his regular mission.

George Gaynor, a security guard at Midway, works most weekends and attends McKenna’s services regularly. “It’s great. You have to figure without Father a lot of these people wouldn’t get to go to church. They have to work. It makes it really nice for us.”

McKenna and his team have to be flexible, since gate availability for the chapel can change at the drop of a hat. On this particular Sunday, their usual site, gate 2, was crowded with holiday travelers and they had to change locations at the last minute. Undaunted, they made their way to the new spot and immediately set to work.

Gerry Aumann, a former Midway Airlines employee who is now a chapel volunteer, announced the location for the service over the America West microphone. Joe and Gerry Ryan, a couple who have helped McKenna for the last 12 years, assembled the altar and consulted with the priest about the placement of the painting and poinsettias. Chester Coheski located the chimes and set out the chairs, bulletins, and hymn sheets. Mary Higgins prepared quietly for the Gospel reading and set out the Communion host and wine.

Some 15 years ago McKenna wanted to “take the Catholic faith outside of church walls to where the people are.” As parish priest at Our Lady of the Snows, at 48th and Leamington, he had intended to offer services in a local mall. Mall management was reluctant, but an alternative occurred to him one day as he walked the four-mile perimeter of the nearby airport during his regular exercise routine.

“It was winter and I came into the airport lobby to warm up,” McKenna says. “Over a cup of coffee, that’s when it occurred to me. This place could use a chapel.” The idea took shape as he thought of a friend and former student of his at Quigley South. That student, Father John Jamnicky, is now the chaplain at O’Hare’s interfaith chapel.

After he retired from parish life 13 years ago, McKenna started his weekend ministry at Midway.

Despite the rapid pace of the January 2 service, McKenna manages to squeeze in birthday greetings to 93-year-old Raffaella Volino. Responding to a special request and donation from a supervisor of janitorial services, he also dedicates the mass to a worker whose children are ill.

That personal touch has caused Cullen, a former union leader, to bring his wife, daughter, and four grandchildren to airport services. The family could attend church in the neighborhood but, as Arlene Cullen says, “We come, I guess, because we just like Father. He knows all the kids.”

McKenna is described by those around him as “soft-spoken,” “great at remembering names,” “kind,” “a holy man,” and “very likable.” The spry 80-year-old seven-time senior golf champion of the Retired Priests of Chicago Archdiocese Association wears a mischievous grin as he tells a visitor that he used to play on the portion of the airport that was once a golf course. “I’d tee off at night under the lights of the planes that were taking off. That’s how much I like to play.”

Besides visiting with those who attend the services, McKenna makes himself available for confessions before and after mass. “I usually just try to take the person to a quiet corner and we speak quietly, much like we’re having a conversation. I try not to draw attention out of respect for the person’s privacy.”

On rare occasions he has been summoned to the airport to offer comfort and spiritual guidance. Once he was called to console family members of an airport employee who committed suicide, another time to offer prayers on behalf of a baggage handler who died in an accident involving a baggage cart. “Mostly I was there to help fellow workers who were simply shocked by what happened. The woman was a new employee, so she really didn’t have any deep friendships, but, as I said, it was important for the others.”

McKenna’s main purpose remains saying mass. In addition to the Sunday service, he also offers a 4 PM Saturday mass. Next year his mission may become easier with the planned construction of a permanent ecumenical chapel.

At 9 AM on the dot, Father McKenna says, “The mass has ended. Go in peace.” At the back of the crowd a couple of strapping policemen let out hearty sighs, then laughter. “Short and sweet,” one of them says. “That’s what I like.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.